Ann Kroeker is writing about her experiences married to a man who grew up in another country and what she discovered about herself in the process over at thehighcalling.org. I decided to join her with a story about my first adventure overseas. It begins in the suburbs of Lisbon, Portugal . . .
The year 1997 contained several firsts for me. I ran my first half marathon, I was homeless for a month for the first time, and in July, I made my first trip overseas. With a group of about 15 from my church, we ventured to a small town just outside of Lisbon, Portugal, where we helped build a theological school with a missionary family we supported.
For two weeks, we labored on a fairly rudimentary construction site, hauling bricks, mixing mortar, and shoveling dirt. We didn’t wear hard hats or protective gear other than sturdy shoes. I learned to build walls during that trip. I also learned to tear down walls that weren’t built correctly.
On the weekends, we visited castles and beaches, shopped at markets, and road the bus to festivals. At night, I drug the mattress from my bunk bed out on the balcony of the guest house, and slept under the stars. I never wanted to leave.
But even with a little bit of sightseeing and recreation, overall the trip was hard work, with plenty of opportunity for illness, fatigue, or injury. But none of that happened to our team, apart from a little bit of exhaustion that an afternoon away from the worksite couldn’t cure.
No injuries happened until two days before our departure, that is.
The women decided to do one final shopping trip, and our host agreed to drive us around in the van. We made several stops, jumping in and out of the sliding van door, until at one of the stops, I hopped too hard and banged my head on the door frame.
I saw stars, I felt instantly nauseated, and my head began to throb. Since it was the end of our shopping trip anyway, I went back to the guest house and took a nap in the leaders’ private room. I slept for hours, and when someone woke me up, my skin was grey and my pupils dilated.
I had a concussion.
The missionaries and team leaders decided I needed to have an xray before making the long trip home. And so sometime after 9 p.m., 36 hours before I was to be on a plane back to the United States, one of the missionary women who spoke fluent Portuguese took me to a nearby clinic.
But with no xray machine on the premises and a sickly American standing before him, the doctor there refused to see me. He waved us on to one of the public hospitals in Lisbon, washing his hands of whatever mess I had gotten myself into.
Once at the hospital, I began to value our American healthcare system with new intensity. For Portuguese patients, gowns were not available, so half-naked patients, disrobed for whatever part of their body was ailing them, were scattered everywhere. As an American, and a very modest one at that, I was fortunate that my head was the problem. But an orderly did give me a half gown and a blanket and insisted I change into those anyway.
Eventually I was wheeled away for an xray, leaving behind my clothes, my passport, and my dignity. After the xray, I ended up in a dark room full of sleeping people on gurneys with IVs dripping into their arms. I tried to talk to the nurse, but she didn’t speak English. As I lay there, scared out of my wits, I began to imagine being trapped in Lisbon forever.
Soon, a doctor came who spoke some English and told me they would keep me overnight, and that my friend had left. I panicked, remembering the last words of one of the male missionaries when I left the guest house, “Whatever you do, don’t let them keep you overnight.” But not wanting to offend the doctor, I just said ok.
Eventually, after I imagined myself running through the streets of Lisbon with nothing but a half-gown and the few words of Portuguese I had picked up, I decided I had to take action. With my blanket wrapped tightly around me, I found the nurses station, where two doctors and two nurses were playing cards, and insisted they find my friend, who I prayed hadn’t actually left, and let me go home.
Apparently my rude American demeanor convinced them I was serious, and after finding my friend, insisting I have a shot (of what, I’ll never know),and letting me change back into my clothes, they let me go.
At some point I paid about $6 US to a clerk, but I never got another bill.
I did have a good story to tell, though, and an acute understanding of what it meant to long for home. Though just days before I thought I never wanted to leave the castles and the dried fish and the beaches that went on forever, that night lying there in what I thought was the psychiatric ward, it was no mere homesickness I was feeling.
In that moment, I could think of nowhere else but home.